Production Chains, Skills and Farming

The UK could suffer future food shortages unless the numbers of skilled people entering UK farming increases, writes ThePoultrySite senior editor, Chris Harris.
calendar icon 23 March 2009
clock icon 4 minute read

Waitrose MD, Mark Price.

And the way forward to build a sustainable agricultural sector is for the industry to not only improve its skills but also to adopt close sustainable relationships with retail partners.

Mark Price, the managing director of the British supermarket chain Waitrose told the recent National Farmers' Union conference in Birmingham that the industry needs to act to stop the threat of loosing its key resource - skill.

He said that a study conducted by IGD on farmers' skills showed that 60,000 people will need to be recruited by 2019 to ensure a skilled agricultural workforce is maintained.

He said that in the last 13 years the number of farmers in the country had fallen by 25 per cent and this will reduce still further unless the skills gap can be bridged.

He said that the UK already relies heavily on imported food.

He also warned that the industry and consumers alike should be prepared to accept higher prices reflecting the true costs.

He said the consumer had been cosseted by a false impression of the availability and cost of food.

Following the Second World War, Britain had wanted "bargain basement abundance" he said and the farmers did what the government wanted, "but they went too far".

He said that food had been seen as a disposable commodity and it has been seen as cheap.

"It is neither of those things," Mr Price said.

He warned that the industry should expect higher prices and costs and said that as an example, abattoirs could expect an 18 per cent rise in costs because of changes in the charging system by the Meat Hygiene Service Inspectors.

However, he also warned the industry that food is now taking a smaller proportion of household expenditure than ever before.

Need for Credible Pricing

Mr Price said the food industry in the UK was moving towards a system of smaller family farms and smaller producers. But he added that the terms such as small and local are strong marketing terms that the UK industry can use to its benefit.

He added that the industry needs to assure long-term contracts with its customers and suppliers need to be paid credible prices.

Mr Price said that the way of ensuring that profits were maximised across the supply chain was by establishing supplier-producer groups.

His main warning, however, was that without lifting the skills threshold in the industry, the traditional supply lines were under threat.

"Modern farming is a highly skilled operation requiring technical proficiency, business acumen and environmental awareness.

"Well-qualified people are essential to its future prosperity.

"The average age of a farmer is 55 years and unless we can fill that skills gap, there's a real possibility that the British farmer and self-sufficiency might become a thing of the past."

Unless action is taken, he said, there will be problems in maintaining the current level of food production.

He said that food imports are set to rise because of a lack of farmers in the UK unless action is taken.

A recent YouGov poll for Waitrose revealed that 82 per cent of consumers were unaware that well over half of the pork consumer in the UK is imported from other EU countries.

"Agriculture needs to offer a clear career path and opportunities for the future.

"With a lack of successors in farming families, more needs to be done to encourage the next generation to stay in agriculture or attract those interested in a rural career," Mr Price said.

March 2009
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